Meta-Gaming and Diplomacy

by Stephen Agar

I thought that this topic was worthy of an article as it is really the essence of the fuss which I helped create over the “bribery” allegations bandied around at MasterCon. The issue which has troubled us isn’t really whether it is morally acceptable to bribe players in a FtF game – it is whether it is morally acceptable to indulge in what has been called “meta-gaming”.

So what is meta-gaming? Gary Pennington, a subscriber to on the Internet has put forward the helpful definition that meta-gaming is “the process of trying to force someone to behave in accordance with your wishes by using threats of actions which will be taken/not taken outside the context of the current game.”

As Gary said, an extreme example would be “You must support my attack on Warsaw with your army in Galicia or I will call round your house later and kill you.” A less extreme example would be “You must support my attack on Warsaw with your army in Galicia in this game or I will not support your defence of Moscow in game X (where X is a different game in which both players are participating) ” In both examples, the protagonist is using knowledge that lie outside the domain of a game to try and influence results inside a game.

My personal view is that layers who indulge in meta-gaming are too competitive for their own good and have an unhealthy attachment to winning at all costs – but I may be in a minority in holding that view. In email games on the Internet meta-gaming is fairly universally condemned and being caught doing so is to risk being thrown out of the game. In the history of Diplomacy in the UK hobby there have been many instances of “meta-gaming”, but usually they all reduce to three simple scenarios:

1. Come Up and See Me Sometime

Bribery has always been tolerated in postal Diplomacy to an extent, as it appealed to the anarchic spirits who truly believe that all is fair in love and Diplomacy. Bribers have not only usually been pretty small beer, but usually were beer. Of course, there isn’t much scope for this in the postal game anyway, as bribery suggests a slightly closer degree of acquaintance than that usually enjoyed by the majority of postal Diplomacy players. In any event, as the “bribery” was often frivolous, it was more a case of someone being able to save face by saying that they were actually helping Mr X because he bought them four pints of Wadworths, rather than admitting that Mr X would have got their centres anyway. I know of no instance of “serious” bribing, because winning a game of postal Diplomacy isn’t sufficiently special in itself to warrant all the effort. That said, I seem to remember that Richard Sharp bought, for cash, the use of Sandra Bond’s units in Armagnac in Megalomania, a game he went on to win. And there are rumours about another postal game featuring John Boocock and Richard Sharp. No doubt all will be revealed in time.

If John Boocock is to be believed, Mark Wightman, Steve Jones and Toby Harris have all had occasions to give him money for favours in FtF Diplomacy games – though I know not if such incidents were the result of implicit threats from John or active bribes from the others. Steve Thomas also related that Toby once offered him cash for help in a FtF Diplomacy game, though for all I know that may have been done with jovial, non-serious, intent.

2. The Big Stick

By which we mean threats such as “I’ll tell your wife you’re having an affair” as opposed to “let me have Lon or I’ll take Bel and Hol.” Real threats are, as you would expect, very rare indeed and not acceptable. In his book, Richard Sharp recounted how one player (who was a solicitor) once sent him a £10 note as payment for agreed co-operation and threatened to sue him if he backed out of the deal (both bribery and threats!). However, that was almost certainly light-hearted as well, part of the friendly banter that can mark such games. In any event, it is hard to make real threats against other players in postal games because of the distance between the players.

We now know that John Boocock has turned this into a fine art by demanding a surety for good behaviour from players next to him in a game. In a sense this is a threat as non-payment presumably means war, though if one of the threatened players then comes back to him and offers him more cash for specific favours then it is an example of bribery. We know that Shaun Derrick thought that this behaviour was OK, and I would assume that is because he believes that meta-gaming isn’t against the rules of the game and therefore must be tolerated.

In the latest TCP there are a couple of allegations that Toby Harris has been known to employ this tactic in FtF games, though others have as well. First it was alleged that he threatened to devote a whole issue of his zine to rubbishing the character of another player unless he handed some centres over. Later in the same issue, Gihan Bandaranaike recalls that Toby once threatened not to give him a lift home unless he helped him in a game of Dip. I make no moral judgement as to whether this sort of behaviour is right or wrong, and in particular if you were not there you can’t tell if it was serious or in jest. I only mention it as an example of meta-gaming.

3. You Scratch My Back…

The classic “You help me in this game and I’ll help you in that game.” Generally frowned upon, witness the general antipathy to the infamous “Karma League” in the early 70’s. The idea behind the Karma League was that members would guarantee never to break agreements with each other in a Diplomacy games, and the names of the other Karma League members were only made known to initiates. Universally condemned and somewhat lost its purpose when the League was promptly infiltrated and the names of members published. There was also the (alleged) deal between Mick Bullock and Richard Walkerdine whereby they helped each other to victories in Dip games or agreed an 18/18 split right from the beginning – known to readers of Dolchstoß as the “Walkerbullock”.

It is not difficult to see why this sort of behaviour is thought to be unethical, as it cuts across the general presumption that each player starts the game with the same chances of winning as Allan Calhamer intended. Obviously in a Tournament situation, this sort of behaviour is even more damaging as there is more at stake than a postal Diplomacy rating (something very few people would ever really concern themselves with).

The most frowned upon example of this sort of meta-gaming was the behaviour of some of the French players at WorldDipCon IV, where some players helped other French players to outright victories for no other reason than they were both French. Such antics were roundly condemned by many, but most noticeably and most loudly by Toby Harris, James Hardy and myself. As I said at the time, I think Toby, who this time was on the receiving end of the complained of activity, was quite right to condemn the Fench meta-gaming in this instance (which gave rise to the EDA Ethis Oath – see later). Rather than accuse Toby of hypocrisy, it would seem that he makes a distinction between different kinds of meta-gaming.

So Is Meta-Gaming All Right?

That is the difficult question. I think that you really need to make up your mind on this one – if meta-gaming is OK, then cross-gaming, bribery and threats (provided they are within the law of the land) should be permitted. Therefore, mutual help in different games is OK (though difficult to achieve in a Tournament with a random draw), bribery is OK and threats are OK. If you think that the game should only be decided within the boundaries of the game activity itself, then meta-gaming is not OK, and neither is cross-gaming, favours or threats.

I don’t think it is logically possible to distinguish a middle ground – if buying someone a pint is an acceptable bribe (£2), why not a £5 note? If threatening not to give someone a lift home is an acceptable threat, why not threatening to abuse and/or embarrass him in front of his friends? If helping another player just because you often socialise with them at weekends is OK, why not help them just because you’re both English/French/Swedish.

The answer, of course, is that it is not OK. Mark Wightman reminded me of the following excerpt from François Rivasseau’s Final Report on World DipCon V.

Quality of Games and Ethics

“The quality of the games played was quite high, this being illustrated by the fact that no 18 centre victory was achieved in either the WDC or the Nation’s Cup competition. Although only playing until 1907 certainly does not help when you play Austria or Italy, it is worthwhile to note that the best players did get their most significant results when playing one of these countries: Bruno-André Giraudon managed to win with both Austria and Italy, and the number of first places achieved with central powers was uncommonly high.

“Three reasons may account for this satisfactory situation: the general level of the players, the homogeneity of the level of the tables of each round (except the first, of course), which was reached thanks to our player scheduling software, and, last but not least, the ethic of play which we succeeded in promoting.

“One word about this; we made public during the WDC the oath of ethics designed within the European Diplomacy Association for the next European DipCon (reproduced below). Every player was warned that the referees would closely watch the ethical aspect of play and would not accept playing for others rather than for one’s self. Particular care would be given to possible 18 centre victories which could have been attributed to ethical irregularity in the competition. It was not necessary to do anything; merely making this announcement proved sufficient. As a consequence, all players fought until the end as they are expected to do at this level of competition, and we had no “collective plays” to observe.

“The conclusion I draw from this experience is that advising the players in this manner as to the ethical aspects of the game improves both the level of the games and the atmosphere of the tournament, particularly for the travellers who, as a result, should not fear a savage and uninteresting coalition of local players against them. This is why I personally recommend, in my capacity of Chairman of WDC V, to the incoming WDC Chairman, to adopt a similar position regarding ethics in Ohio.”

EDA Ethics Oath

1. You should always play so that you maximise your own score and ranking in the tournament, or in the game you are playing.

2. You should not engage in cross-gaming. That is, you must not give favours to another player in exchange for assistance in earlier games or for the hope or promise of assistance in later games. Every game is a new one and should be treated as such. You should not try to take revenge for a stab or elimination that occurred in any other game.

3. You should act properly when conducting diplomacy with other players and must not cheat or complain at the least provocation. You should act the statesman you are supposed to be.

4. You should never attack or ally with any other player for purely ethnical or geographic reasons.

Now I accept that this Ethics Oath doesn’t expressly mention bribery, but John Boocock can scarcely claim to have always been playing so as to maximise his own score and ranking in the Tournament. I don’t know if Shaun considers that the EDA Ethics Oath was relevant to EuroDipCon this year, as his ruling does seem to contradict it.

My position is that meta-gaming is not acceptable in FtF games or postally. That said, I accept it is likely to be tolerated in a mild and good-humoured way in a postal Diplomacy environment where winning isn’t really that important unless you have an unhealthy obsession with winning.

One final point. Some people will say, you can’t stop meta-gaming – if people want to do deals like this, then they will. That is true. But it is a sorry state indeed if we fail to prohibit behaviour that we think wrong, only because to do so will not reduce the incidence of the offence to zero. On that basis the whole of the criminal law is a waste of time. I think such behaviour should be outlawed because to fail to do so will make it a legitimate tactic and encourage some to indulge in meta-gaming who would not otherwise do so (e.g. Mark Wightman). A refusal to say that such behaviour is unacceptable is tantamount to saying it is acceptable.

For the sake of completeness, I would make a further distinction between what is described above, which I will call “external” meta-gaming (involving two or more players) and “internal” meta-gaming (which only involves one player). For example, if you decide to attack Stephen Agar because you perceive him to be a weak unreliable player, or to attack Richard Williams because he stabbed you last time, then you are indulging in a type of meta-gaming, in that your decisions are based on events from outside the game. This would be internal meta-gaming, but it is really human nature and totally undetectable. It is easier to condemn actions than motives.